The Conversation: Paula Hawkins and Taylor Jenkins Reid on the business of best-sellers
The names behind Daisy Jones & the Six and Girl on the Train are coming for your beach tote with their new novels Malibu Rising (June 1) and A Slow Fire Burning (August 31).
It's evening in Edinburgh and still morning in Topanga Canyon when Paula Hawkins and Taylor Jenkins Reid dial in, each backlit by their respective far-flung time zones. Their new novels too — Reid's latest, Malibu Rising, arrives June 1; Hawkins' A Slow Fire Burning, Aug. 31 — land on distant ends of the beach-read spectrum. Jenkins Reid, after all, is best known for fizzily addictive reads like Daisy Jones & the Six and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Hawkins for the darker thrills of her blockbuster Girl on the Train and 2017's Into the Water.
But after reading each other's new novels (at EW's pesky request) and coming together via the genre-collapsing magic of Zoom, the transcontinental pair bonded over "bad" female protagonists, screen adaptations, and the Tao of book touring.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did the seed start for each of you in these stories?
PAULA HAWKINS: I had an idea for a character that I'd been thinking about, this young woman, Laura, who's had a hard time in life and is constantly kind of fire-fighting. I started out creating a relationship between her and a little old lady that she randomly met, and it sort of just grew out of there.
TAYLOR JENKINS REID: About six years ago I had read about this debutante party in the '60s that went totally out of control and filed it away. But it wasn't until I started really thinking about what my next novel would be after Daisy Jones and I was like, "Well, I want it to be a family and I think it would be interesting if it was set in Malibu," and then it became, "Oh! Let's use that party."
Technology can definitely be the enemy of storytelling, especially in a thriller. Taylor, your book is set in the early '80s so it's sort of naturally analog — but Paula since yours is all in modern-day London, do you feel like you consciously steer clear of, you know, DNA swabs and cell-tower pings, thing like that?
HAWKINS: I think technology has probably made life a lot more difficult for criminals, which is something we can all be happy about, but it's not great from a crime novelist's point of view. I don't tend to really examine police procedure very much, in any case. I'm much more interested in the psychological [aspect]... And yes, mobile phones are always getting lost [in my novels] or what have you, because I don't want them to come into the story. [Laughs]
JENKINS REID: It just makes things way too simple. Even in love stories — "Well, just call her." It's like, "No! I don't want you to be able to call her!"
The idea of "likeability" in a main character, whatever that means, has historically been such a sticking point, especially for female writers and protagonists. Do you feel like you both still have to grapple with that?
JENKINS REID: I feel like you hit on something already within that, which is — there's a huge difference between likeability and rootability. You don't have to like someone to find yourself wanting them to get what they want. I feel like Girl on the Train is a perfect example of that where you might be like, "Whooo, she's an alcoholic! She needs help." And maybe you don't like her or maybe you do, but you feel for her.
I think that's the thing that I'm always working on. I've even had some of my best friends be like, "I don't like Daisy Jones," and I go, "Well, that's fine, there's a lot of things not to like about her! But do you feel for the character? Do you care what happens next?" I'm curious, Paula, if that became very thorny for you as well.
HAWKINS: The likeability thing, I think, is a side issue, you put it very well. Margaret Atwood said something about how people seem to judge characters as though they were people running for office. They're not there to be shining examples of humanity! Novels would be very, very boring if everyone was good.
JENKINS REID: And you have an expectation going in to certain types of art. If I'm watching a romantic comedy, then I probably do want to love the main character or the romantic lead or whatever. But to me, that's what's really, really fun about entering into somebody else's mind. If it's something I would do, then that's just… my life.
Well, speaking of other people lives, what was the research like for on your latest to get into your characters?
HAWKINS: [to Reid] Yeah, can you surf now?
JENKINS REID: [Laughs] Yeah, right! I know. I can't surf. It was a lot of sort of embarrassing research like, "What does gnarly actually mean? What's a 6-2 thruster?"
HAWKINS: I read a lot about the conditions that somebody like Laura would have had from a traumatic accident, the disinhibition and that kind of thing. But apart from that, not really. I'm not a great researcher, I have to say. I do tend to just make things up. [Laughs]
Taylor, Mkck Riva, the rock star–slash–absentee dad in your book, feels like a fun sort of musical hangover from Daisy…
JENKINS REID: He's actually mentioned in a scene in Daisy Jones! And if you go back, I wrote a book before that, called The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, and he is Evelyn Hugo's third husband. So, Mick Riva is somebody that I've been really obsessed with for a while. And this is his moment.
Now if we're talking about likeability versus rootability and whether you're compelled, I don't like Mick Riva at all. Since that time he showed up in Evelyn Hugo, I've never liked him. But I find him really, really compelling. Why men like that do what they do, and how they keep getting away with it.
HAWKINS: But it's clever because even though you say you don't like him, in his early years, you do fall in love with him as well. You can see why she falls, and then yeah he turns out to be a complete shit. But I think he's exactly the sort of man you just keep taking back.
Paula, you also get the chance within Slow Fires to write a book within a book as a male novelist writing crime fiction under a female pen name, and poke a little at those tropes.
HAWKINS: Yeah, that was a lot of fun. You hear interviews every now and again by literary fiction writers who clearly believed that all genre fiction is nonsense but that it's also incredibly easy. But of course [in Slow Fires], he couldn't resist making it really interesting by messing around with the time line, thinking he's done things that no one has ever done before like getting inside the mind of a killer. [Laughs]
Speaking of pen names, Paula you wrote under one for years and worked as a financial journalist in London as well, and Taylor you had jobs in Hollywood casting and teaching and had some other career swerves. Publishing always loves an ingenue, but do you think it ultimately served you both better that your breakouts came a little bit later?
HAWKINS: I think I needed to write my way into the right space for these books — I couldn't just come up with that at 24 or whatever. Certainly there are people who do, and I didn't study creative writing at university. For me definitely, it was incredible to have lived a bit. I wouldn't have been able to do it without that.
You needed that train commute every day.
HAWKINS: Yeah, exactly. [Laughs]
JENKINS REID: I feel like learning how to write a beautiful sentence and then having something to say are two totally different things, and I think both are hugely important. But for me, I didn't have much to say until I had been through certain things.
And that's not true for everyone — there are some people that have something to say at the age of 18 and are ready to go! But for me, until you've had enough complicated feelings to form some sort of strong point of view about something, I just personally would find that it doesn't matter how beautiful or flowery a language is, there's no there there. And so that was the process for me. It was less learning how to tell the story correctly, and more learning what stories I wanted to tell.
Obviously you've already had a very big movie, Paula. And Taylor, they're working on making Daisy into a limited series at Amazon. Is it strange to hand your work over and sort of relinquish control when you're not adapting it yourself?
HAWKINS: I was quite sort of casual about giving up the rights, actually. It was very early on that it was auctioned and I knew there was no way I was going to adapt it myself, so I think I was quite happy to let someone else. I don't feel precious about my work particularly and I do think writing for the screen is a very different skill — and also it's only one interpretation of your book. They haven't done anything to it! Your book remains.
JENKINS REID: I haven't gone through all of the stages of the process like Paula has, which is why it's so great to hear [this]. I am very precious about my work, I totally am. But I have found great satisfaction in just choosing partners that you trust, and I really trust the team doing Daisy Jones. I do want them to tell a story that stands for the story that I told — doesn't have to be the same story! But I want it to have the same intention. That matters to me.
Writing is such a solitary life. Do you both usually enjoy the part where you go out into the world and have to sell it? I'm wondering, as we all try to figure out what a not-quite-post-pandemic book tour might look like.
JENKINS REID: It's hard to say. Right now, I think the plans are to try to do really special stuff virtually — to try to get people to have a really fun time, but probably still in their homes. But Paula, I think you have more time than I do, right, till August... So maybe?
HAWKINS: Yeah, I moaned a lot about touring, but I take it all back. Now that it's been taken away from me I'm like, "Yes, I love it!" [Laughs] There will be online stuff, but I'm hoping to do some real-life events in the fall here in the U.K. I don't think there'll be any international touring this year because I just don't think it's going be possible, but I'm hoping maybe for the paperback.
JENKINS REID: There was definitely a part of me that's like, "Okay well, we can't do that this year, so I don't have to worry about getting nice outfits and who's going to watch my kid," and all of that stuff. So there is some benefit there.
But as an author you spend so much time by yourself at your desk, and touring is the moment in which you become forward facing and get to see the people that your work is resonating with and you get to meet them and talk to them and hear from them, and tell stories that you might not otherwise tell. There's something really special about it, so it's absolutely something lost. But like Paula's saying, 2022, let's see, maybe paperback tours? Paula and I will go on the road together!
HAWKINS: Oh, definitely. [Laughs]